In the Crowd

When I’m in the crowd I don’t see anything
My mind goes a blank in the humid sunshine…
– The Jam

Way back in the 1870’s, Scottish football saw its first black player. Andrew Watson, born in Guyana, played for Queens Park and for Scotland on three occasions.

“Watson was therefore, as far as has been established, not only the first black player but the first foreign-born player of note anywhere in Britain,” writes Nick Harris, in England Their England.

Yet, the sight of a few black footballers provoked such a reaction in Breogan a hundred years after Watson had turned out for Scotland against England. Perhaps Breogan was a provincial backwater?

Celtic had a black hero in the 1950’s in the shape of the Jamaican Gil Heron (the father of the rap pioneer Gil-Scott Heron). During the seventies, Paul Wilson, an Indian-born player of mixed race origin, spent over ten years at Parkhead and made one appearance for the national team. However, when Mark Walters became Rangers first black player at the tail end of the eighties, he was welcomed with a barrage of bananas and monkey chants from the Parkhead terraces.

I wonder now if there were others like me that afternoon in Breogan: not naturally racist (if there is such a thing) but thinking this kind of behaviour will gain approval under the circumstances. Being part of the crowd does funny things to people. Some behave in ways they’d never dream of doing publicly outside the ground on non-match days. Similar actions in the pub or in the street would quickly lead to isolation, rejection, disapproval and quite possibly a good kicking. But at the match, a few nuts and screws loosen. Before you know it you can be screaming abusive insults and chants at people who have done you no harm. Think of city derby matches in particular. You can be chanting disdainfully at another mob, one which includes friends and colleagues, individuals of similar persuasions, political views and ideals, all for the sake of wanting to appear loyal to the colours.

It may be about letting off steam, having a laugh, enjoying a sense of collective identity and fitting in. But it is also an opportunity to vent your true feelings and prejudices without reprimand. Perhaps it’s a confusing mixture of all that. Then the whistle blows, the gates open and you become an individual again, with your own views, sense of rational judgement and strong morals. Some of these fans achieve notoriety, recognition and even become local celebrities of sorts.

From the novel, Countries of the World. ©Steven Porter 2011


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